How are Things

Tomorrow is a Friday, the Friday when my original plane ticket to come home from the UK had me scheduled to fly. I still have the “fly home” reminder on my digital calendar. And my calendar hanging in my kitchen recently looked like this.

On Monday, March 23rd, I wrote the following, trying to capture something about what was happening:

“I am writing this on a Monday, it is one week since I left my hotel in London and made my way to Heathrow, to catch the last direct flight to my home in North Carolina.  I had spent the weekend trying to keep up with the news about coronavirus, and the national and international responses to the pandemic. I went from “maybe it’s safer to wait until April 10th, to use my current ticket to go back home once things are more calm” to “if I don’t leave before midnight on March 16th I might not get to fly back to the US for months.”  So, I cried, changed my ticket, and went home. I was luckier than many, in having only been in England since early March, I was allowed to fly into my home airport rather than into one of the 13 airports now designated for processing of any international arrivals. I was lucky, in that I got to go home.

I was in the UK to do work, to run workshops and have meetings with people I had been doing remote work with for the previous several months.  I have, for the last few years, been working as a consultant with universities, and education and library organizations. I do a great deal of my work online, because I work across locations, and with people who are not here in my home city.  I have conversations, I write collaboratively, I conduct interviews, I joke and I play in various online places. I am deeply familiar and comfortable with working remotely, at a distance, online.

But my work is also designed at some point to have a face to face component.  We work online after the in-person work to write a report, or we work online before the in-person work to prepare a workshop, generate interview questions, decide what the panel discussion needs to address.  I had been preparing a full month’s worth of work in March 2020–six workshops for two different organizations, a panel discussion, one site visit, and an interview-based project. When the UCU strikes were announced, I made sure to schedule working days that would not violate picket lines.  By the end of my first week of work, it was clear that I should also have been paying attention to the pandemic, and that it was going to change everyone’s plans, not just mine.

So I spent some time working on remote alternatives to some of the workshops, and offering to cancel or postpone others.  I offered to train people to deliver what I had prepared, as if the barrier was simply going to be my presence or absence, not the wholesale absence of people from their workplaces, because they were sheltering at home from the pandemic.

In the end, all of the work was cancelled (let us say postponed, let us be hopeful there will be things to do again) because if I did not leave I would not get home.  And the fact is, while I think the work I was trying to do would have been useful, it does not take precedence over people trying to weather the pandemic, manage the panic of these times, take care of their loved ones, and hold on to hope for the future.  I don’t know what is going to happen next. It’s only been a week since my personal part of the world fell apart. It’s too early to have expectations. I do have hopes, and fears, as usual.

The kind of work I do is led by the organizations who bring me in–I was working on strategic plans, research into teaching and learning practices, I was helping teach people how to do research of their own to learn more about academic practices in their own organizations.  I hope that there will be chances to facilitate that kind of work again, and I know that there will be a need to figure out what teaching, learning, and research needs to look like after this is all over. There was a great deal in our previous “normal” that was unhealthy and unsustainable.”

Over the last few years I have been so lucky, so privileged, and built a world of work for myself where I could travel internationally, speak to people online, and do work across a wide distribution of territory.  That could all fundamentally change. There will be fundamental changes. And they all pale in comparison to the disaster that is my country’s political situation, the global crisis made far worse by political choices, racism, and inequality, and the people who are dying now because of it.

How are things? I am staying home, because I can. I am listening to a lot of podcasts.  I am watching escapist TV with my people at home.  I am cooking, and going for (solitary) walks on our local greenway.  I am writing my representatives in Congress, and to libraries that are still open and putting their workers in danger, and staying connected to far-flung people with the internet.  I am crying. I am angry. I am scared. I am holding fragile plans for the future.  

How are you?

“Back to Normal”

https://pixabay.com/photos/bletchley-park-turin-bombe-cypher-3518213/
Image by jonmdyson from Pixabay

It’s a terrible phrase, I think.  “Back to normal.” It assumes that normal is a thing.  It assumes that people who go through trauma and disasters can just “go back” to what was before.  It is a phrase invoked by some in the middle of a crisis, thinking of getting on the other side of it, “when we get back to normal.”

I have been thinking about the visit I got to do, at Bletchley Park last year.  I knew some of the story of the code-breaking, and in particular the role that women played during World War II not just in Nazi code-breaking but in doing all manner of work that simply had to be done by women because men were at war.  In the US, Rosie the Riveter represented not just the spirit of US support for the war effort, but the women who were working in factories and all the other places where men worked before the war. As I walked through Bletchley Park, seeing the artifacts representing the women who worked there–I was especially touched by the cardigans draped over the desk chairs–I was struck by how not-transformative, in terms of gender roles and work, World War II was.  When the war was over, people wanted to go “back to normal”–for white middle class families, and some white working class families, women working out of the home was a wartime thing, a crisis thing, a thing not to be celebrated or to be thought about in terms of what else might be possible, but something to put aside now that things were “back to normal” (as if post-war anything could be normal). 

I mean, I deeply understand and sympathize with wanting for things to be back to normal.  I wish I knew what normal even was anymore, but it seems like what people say when they mean they were comfortable.

So already, in the middle of all of this we are experiencing now, a pandemic, people struggling to protect each other, educators turning to (or forced to turn to) digital tools and places and processes to try to finish off a term completely disrupted (in the traditional sense, not the edtech sense) by current events–

In the middle of all this I am hearing and seeing some people wondering aloud if the changes that people are going to have to engage in, the ways that people need to use digital in particular, might permanently change some people’s practices.  Maybe people will embed new ways of digital working in their teaching practices. I keep reading the phrase “online pivot.” There’s a solidity to that that I am skeptical of.

And maybe some will.  But I can’t help thinking, that digital turned to in a time of crisis is potentially indelibly associated with crisis.  It feels like emergency measures, not everyday practice.

When we get on the other side of this, when we are between crises, when people want to “go back to normal” what happens to the new things they engaged with?  And framing this in terms of choices is wrong, of course. Institutions will take note of what they can and can’t take advantage of. There has and continues to be a (willful?) misunderstanding of what digital means in terms of labor and time (it isn’t less of anything, if you want the work to be done well).  I don’t know (none of us do) what lessons we get to learn from going through all of this.

I am just thinking, that for some people, digitally focused practice is not “normal.”  And some will be happy to get “back to normal,” further away from digital and also further away from the feeling of emergency, and crisis–not because they didn’t learn anything, but because they want to be comfortable.

Being Human Online in a Time of Crisis

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Troilus and Cressida

co-authored with Lawrie Phipps and Peter Bryant

There’s been worry, anger, fear, snark, genuine excitement and lots of emotions in between and around those as responses to what educators need to do to interact with each other, and their students, now that we are well and truly in the throes of the global impact of COVID-19.

Conversations across education see-saw back and forth between “Here’s a list of tools you can use to put your class online” and “Here’s how I care for my students and I do when I teach online.”  

What we learned while interviewing UK teachers in higher and further education about the choices they make around teaching, was that decisions about technology primarily emerged from teaching and pastoral care needs, rather than some abstracted notion of technology being “better” or “21st century.”  

Let’s be clear from the outset: needing to move your interactions with your students to an online-only environment is not the same thing as “my campus needs to buy technology x”  As we, and many others have said before, Digital is People – EdTech is not the solution you are looking for; spending millions of dollars on a system is a waste of money if you are not supporting a change in the culture that empowers people to change their practice.

We know that many campuses already have tools for things like videoconferencing, document sharing, online synchronous and asynchronous discussions etc. You will not be surprised to hear one of us (Lawrie) state the obvious – if you have Office365 you already have a lot of tools that will help you support and engage with others online!  

Small groups can talk on conference calls, if videoconferencing is not an option. The specific tools are much less important than knowing that firstly something is possible and secondly you are not alone in trying that something.  

People have been busy in the social networks reassuring folks who have never taken their practices online that it’s not only possible to do that, but also possible to do well, with the human needs of students and faculty and staff in mind.

The resources in “Teaching in the Context of COVID-19,” gathered together by the HASTAC group and Cathy Davidson are marvelous precisely because they are not just lists of tools.  Here are collected ideas about setting expectations (yours and your students’), teaching remotely in a variety of situations (not just emergencies), accessibility (concerns for which have driven many areas of digital teaching and learning practices for some time), and communities that have been working around online and digital learning for decades.

Our personal social media timelines are full of people offering their expertise in teaching online–it’s easiest in this context to point to some from Twitter, but they have been seen in Facebook and also in the form of emails to various lists.

Laura Gibbs, for instance, has been writing reassuringly and with authority about online teaching and learning since long before this crisis, and has been on Twitter offering support and advice

There are plenty of examples we could share, but what is striking to us is seeing people spend as much if not more time talking about supporting students, establishing trust, cultivating engagement, and being interactive (synchronously and asynchronously) than they do about “this is a tool I use.”  

Pointing to specific tools, in particular tools that institutions do not have access to yet but could purchase a contract for, is something particular vendors have been doing since January, and it does not speak well for those companies that they see this crisis as a revenue opportunity rather than a moment for help, collaboration and sharing.

So when we were talking about writing a blogpost thinking this through, and maybe writing up a collation of the kinds of pro-social behaviors we saw being advocated for, we were scooped by the work of Peter Bryant, who has been working on a COVID-19 response plan from his position in Australia since January.  As was identified in Lawrie’s last post, on how various Australian colleagues were beginning to establish a response to Covid19, they were very aware of the potential impact; and so were vendors who seem to be circling Australian senior managers like great white sharks. 

This morning we (Lawrie and Donna) spent 90 minutes talking to Peter Bryant about what he is seeing from Australian universities responding to the crisis. Peter has developed a fantastic response, it is focused on the cultural change that needs to happen, but grounded in the short term needs of the staff and students, and pragmatic strategies that are in place to mitigate the impact of Covid19.  

Here is Peter’s strategy.

Here in the UK we (don’t be confused, reader – I, Donna, am here working for the month–good timing on my part, don’t you think?) are mindful that this health crisis is also taking place against the backdrop of labor strikes; and a problem in the US and the UK with contingent labor, overwork, and too much placed on too few full time workers.  

So yes, while this might indeed be an opportunity for online teaching and learning to shine, it should not be the opportunity that some of the powers-that-be were looking for to further exploit the labor of already exploited workers in HE and FE. 

Calls for people to actually have time off, sick time where they are not expected to work, room to rest and recover mentally from the stresses of so much that is going on, these calls should be listened to and met with more than just good intentions and hand waving about “all the work we need to do.”

We are also hopeful in the resource sharing we already see–it’s so important to draw and expand on the work already happening within the network, because there are too few people available to work on this complicated problem of wrangling teaching and learning across myriad institutions, at a distance and on a scale not attempted before.  Sharing on social media, on blogs, in emails, is how we can give each other more capacity for this work than we would otherwise have working in isolation. Digital places and tools mean that our staff, our students, and we ourselves do not have to be alone, even if some of us are in quarantine.

Who Gets to Have Agency?

Trinity College, Hartford CT

I was pleased to have the chance to visit Trinity College, thanks to the invitation of Jason Jones.  I was asked to talk about “Agency” which I something I’ve been writing about and around most of this year, I think.  As usual this is my attempt to represent in writing what I said in the room.

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Trinity College is located just west of the Kwinitekw River, within Wangunk homelands. The colonial city of Hartford occupies lands that were called Suckiaug, or black fertile earth in Algonquian. The river valley has sustained countless generations of Wangunk people, joined by indigenous communities from across the globe, including within Hartford’s Andean, Central American, and Caribbean communities. The land currently known as Connecticut is the territory of the Mohegan , Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett and Nipmuc Peoples,

I want to begin by telling the story of Bryan Short.  You should read his own account of his experiences with submitting and FOI request for his data as collected by the learning management system (LMS) at the University of British Columbia.  If you do nothing else, watch this video he produced on the collection of student data.  Bryan was kind enough to talk to me earlier this year about what happened in his final year at UBC. 

He was working at Digital Tattoo, which is a learning resource for students to teach about digital identity, and how what they do online might impact in the face to face world.  He had a supervisor who encouraged him to look at the LMS, asking questions specifically about what data gets collected, and how it might be used

Bryan was funded through the center for teaching, learning and technology (the part of the university responsible for the LMS).  He encountered people in the CLT who were encouraging a critical take, as well as people (in particular those managing the LMS directly) who clearly felt a bit defensive about his line of inquiry.  He also recalls people in central IT services who, while worried about speaking out themselves, encouraged Bryan to be critical.  

Bryan looked into the Terms of Use, and figured that the only way to learn comprehensively what was going on with his data was to submit an FOI request.  And this turned out to be a big hassle because they his University didn’t actually have a process in place–suggesting to him that the expectation was that no student would actually ask about their data in the first place.

Bryan suggested that the lack of process, what seems to be a lack of caring about students and their data, was actually a lack of disclosure and transparency.  

Over the course of trying to get his university to share what was happening with the data their systems were collecting on him, Bryan never felt comprehensively supported in his interrogation of the process.  He encountered people who saw learning analytics as a way to help students. When “more forthright” instructors helped him ask questions by showing him the LMS dashboard that instructors could use for participation, he took that information to administrators, who were dismissive about whether the data collected would be actually be used (which does suggest we should be asking why collect data that is unlikely to be used…)

Bryan’s experience was that UBC was pushing back against his requests.  They blew through a few deadlines, implying that his requests were unreasonable.  Their pushing away of him made him angry, and motivated him to continue. He was invited to speak to grad students at the iSchool, and he encouraged people in the class to fill out the forms and ask for the data because he wanted to see if multiple requests would really break the university’s ability to comply.  

As he spoke to me about this, he remembered feeling tenuous about the project.  He even received emails from supporters that suggested that they were being pressured about what he was doing, and that he might get pulled into meetings about it.

At the end of his time at UBC, the university switched their LMS from Blackboard to Canvas.  For his final online-only class, he chose not to agree to the terms of use for Canvas. That created tension between him and his instructors, who then had to email materials to him individually.  He also couldn’t engage in class discussions with his classmates, and in the end of course this impacted his ability to be successful in classes, and he didn’t get same experience that others were getting.

Bryan filed another FOI for UBC and Instructure, and didn’t get information on time to do anything with it as a Digital Tattoo employee.  The day he received the information was his last day at Digital Tattoo, and there could be no followup on his part.  

Bryan remembers hearing instructors and administrators say that the data collected would “help us help you!” but when he asked for evidence that the data collection actually helped struggling students, there was nothing.  There were, however, clear benefits for administrators wanting to manage and report on student activities.  

So let’s think about this, and ask the question:

Who gets to say no?

I read and hear versions of “We have all this data we should do something with it”  and “Help us help you” with no stories at all about students who were actually helped by massive data collection.  When questioned, many suggest they want this data because they are coming from a place of care.

At Trinity, there is a merged unit–IT and Library, and as such is a unit in charge of multiple systems that collect and store student and faculty data, 

And historically libraries didn’t keep all this data, because of concern about patron privacy and protection

The potential of the systems we have now to collect and surveill makes it easy to do market- imperative-driven things such as offer suggestions, create profiles, and there is plenty of pressure to do so.

How much agency gets surrendered to these systems, to the predictive algorithm?

Chris Gilliard (2016)  and Safiya Noble’s (2018) works provide two important cautions about the ways in which digital structures reproduce and amplify inequality.  Technology is not neutral, and the digital tools, platforms, and places with which we engage, online or off, are made by people, and informed by our societies, and all of the biases therein.

This, then  is an important educational consideration:  the tension between a “market forces” argument to use the data to predict and prescribe actions, vs. an approach that centers pedagogy, process, and potential, and resists prediction in favor of providing opportunities to see what might happen.

In my work as an anthropologist in libraries and universities I have contributed to physical space and web redesigns.  There’s been an interesting tension between “find problems and fix them” and “explore how people study/do research/teach/write”  I write about it with Andrew Asher in our article “Ethnographish.”  In particular, we point to the culture of libraries (and the nature of institutions generally) as resistant to open-ended work that doesn’t have a concrete problem to solve:

“Libraries are notoriously risk averse. This default conservative approach is made worse by anxiety and defensiveness around the role of libraries and pressures to demonstrate value. Within this larger context, where the value of libraries is already under question, open-ended, exploratory ethnographic work can feel risky.“

Lanclos and Asher (2016)

I think these are related, the tensions I am identifying here. The contrast between treating students as problems to be solved (via predictive analytics) and treating students as people engaging in complex processes within education, emerges from a similar place that generates the contrast between “problem-solving” and open-ended exploration of behavior.  These are different parts of the same conversation around “What is the role of education?”

“A college education, whether it is a night class in auto mechanics or a graduate degree in physics, has become an individual good.  This is in contrast to the way we once thought of higher (or post-secondary) education as a collective good, one that benefits society when people have the opportunity to develop their highest abilities through formal learning.” 

(Tressie McMillan Cottom, LowerEd 2017, p. 13)

Whether you think education is about people acquiring credentials (a commodity) or if it’s a collective good, important to society as a whole, will likely play a part in whether you think that people working in institutions should primarily problem-solve, or work in less transactional ways to gain insight.  

In a lot of design work I see the use of Personas, and there are some interesting issues around the use of personas and the extent to which they do or do not get directly reflected in designs.

What I have also  found in my own more recent work, as someone brought in to various higher and further education contexts to help people reflect on and develop their personal and professional practices, is that identity categories are quickly taken up by people.  

We are primed in a variety of ways by diagnostic tests and also “fun” internet quizzes to label themselves.  “I’m ENTJ” “I’m 40 but my social media age is 16” I’ve spent a lot of time in workshops trying to manage people’s anxieties around what they think these categories say about them as people.  They apologise for their practice, because they can read the judgements embedded in the labels–”capable” “novice” “1st year” “1st gen”

 We have people deciding that they were more or less capable depending on the label they felt fit them. 

Early in my time doing work in libraries, I was tasked with some web usability testing.  We generated tasklists, reported on the efficacy of web environments, etc. It was clear to me in the work that people didn’t sit down to a website and say “I’m a first year, and I’m using this website”  They sat down and said “I’m writing a paper, I need to find sources.” So I was perplexed at the use of personas in web UX, because in the course of my research I saw people making meaning of their encounters with the web environment based on what they wanted and needed to do, first and foremost–not who they were.  What I was told, when I asked, was that personas are useful to have in meetings where you need to prove that “users are people.”

(Sidenote–I’d rather start with “people” than “users” especially in a library context because your community includes  people who aren’t necessarily visible “users” of any of your spaces)

When UX workers use personas, to frame our testing of websites, we have capitulated to a system that is already disassociated from people, and all their human complexity.  The utility of personas is a symptom of the lack of control that libraries and librarians have over the systems they use. How absurd to have to make the argument that these websites and databases will be used by people.  The insidious effect of persona-based arguments is to further limit what we think people are likely to do as particular categories. Are first year students going to do research? Do undergraduates need to know about interlibrary lending?  Do members of academic staff need to know how to contact a librarians? Why or why not? If we had task-based organizing structures in our websites, it wouldn’t matter who was using them. It would matter far more what they are trying to do.  

So I have a problem, clearly, with using personas as a design principle for organizing your spaces around identity

I think it’s important to consider:   what are your systems and structures communicating to the people in your library about what is possible?  Is it organized around who you think they are?  

Or about what they can do?

One of those provides more room for choice and agency than the other

This is not to say that identity doesn’t matter–but what we want is for identity to come from, and inform how the students wants to work and what their work means.  We should not want for identity to be a controlling category that limits what is possible.

Who is to say that undergraduates don’t need similar kinds of access to website space that faculty do?  At some point both of them are writing, both of them are researching. The difference is in how deep a dive they do, not in the basic activities.

So, my advocacy would be for practice-based personas, if you are going to use them.  Why?

Because it provides space for agency.  

All year I have been giving talks that revolve around deCerteau’s distinction between kinds of agency, in particular tactical vs. strategic agency.  

I have mentioned refusal and we can use deCerteau’s framing to distinguish between tactical refusal, which comes from from a position of no power, and strategic refusal, which can be engaged in by people with power.    

Let’s think about our community members.–and here I will be indulging in a bit of personas

What does student agency look like? They can make choices.  But there are often constraints around those choices. It’s worth asking, for example, in the case of learning analytics, the extent to which a student could actually choose not to participate in the systems that harvest data, and still successfully navigate to their degree.  

Faculty have more institutional power than students, and sometimes more than non-faculty staff at universities and colleges, but they are themselves embedded in their own webs of power and influence, and don’t always get to be strategic.  For example, they technically have choices about when and where to publish, but there are tenure and promotion requirements that constrain their choices. Even if faculty value Open Access and all it stands for, if they want tenure might have to submit their work to journals that are closed and paywalled, because that is what success looks like in their discipline.

Faculty can also be limited in what and how they teach, as I witnessed when a junior faculty member at a university was discouraged from teaching in active learning classrooms because they “can’t teach as much content that way.” Regardless of that faculty member’s own perspective on teaching and effectiveness, they only had so much power to engage.  It’s also worth remembering that any faculty member who is not a cisgendered heterosexual white man is even more vulnerable, and in need of care.

This is all about power and culture as well as practice.  

So, what are people working in education, in IT and libraries,  to do?

Let’s think again about orienting to practice, rather than identity.  I find this useful not just as an anthropologist, but as someone concerned with social justice, and the ways that institutions can use identity to constrain and cap the potential that people have to do unexpected things.

Approaches to digital literacy can be similarly constraining–when we test people and put them in categories, that offers fewer options (and far less imagination) than assuming that everyone has a practice, but also everyone (faculty and students alike) upon arrival into an institution could use some information and help with How Things Are Done Here and What Is Possible.

So in an ideal world, libraries and educational IT (and the universities and colleges in which they are embedded) would recognize the range of practices involved in scholarship (reading, writing, processing, communicating, researching, testing, etc) and then also have the resources to configure places (digital and physical) where these things are not only possible, but those possibilities are signaled to their community members.

This is not the same thing as “freshmen go here”

This is about flexibility, and communication, and also the ability to let go of what people “should” be doing when they do scholarship.  While there are wrong ways to do it, there is also a spectrum of right ways, and much of that has to do with accommodating the ways that people need to fit being a scholar into the rest of their lives.

I want to point here to the work I got to do on the lives of commuter students.  In that project, we interviewed student-parents about their academic practices, and where they studied (and why) to gain insight into their lives.  We got to use this work to make an argument for a family-friendly study room in the library, and then evaluate the initial impact that room might have on the lives of students.  This wasn’t a project that was reacting to a “demand” for it–there wasn’t a sense among students before we started this project that this was work the library could do. In connecting with students, and listening to the stories of trying to carve time out to study in the course of their complex lives, we worked towards giving our students more choices.  This was the library Facilitating strategic agency : using the power that the library and education technology can have to create spaces for students to discover and engage in the kinds of practices that work well for them.

Open-ended ethnography can be a way to create space for us to imagine ways to allow agency in educational spaces.  Exploratory work that isn’t just about “solving problems” can lead to insight, and allow library and IT workers agency too, to go beyond instrumental approaches, to move away from purely tactical, reactive approaches, and to gain access to more strategic levels of iterative planning and decision making

Resources and Further Reading

Cottom, Tressie McMillan. Lower ed: The troubling rise of for-profit colleges in the new economy. The New Press,  2017.

Chris Gilliard and Hugh Kulik “Digital Redlining, Access and Privacy”  Privacy Blog, Common Sense Education, May 24, 2016, https://www.commonsense.org/education/privacy/blog/digital-redlining-access-privacy 

Lanclos, Donna, and Andrew D. Asher. “‘Ethnographish’: The State of the Ethnography in Libraries.” Weave: Journal of Library User Experience 1.5 (2016). https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/weave/12535642.0001.503?view=text;rgn=main

de Certeau, Michel, and Steven Rendall. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 2011.

Lanclos, Donna and Winterling, Rachael “Making Space in the Library for Student Parents” in  Academic Libraries for Commuter Students: Research-Based Strategies, Mariana Regalado and Maura A. Smale, eds. (33-51).  (Chicago: American Library Association) 2018. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-EwMBW4DXF1WUVrZEtYeUp0Y1BZbE5RTDBKakpzdWFqQ0Rn/view

Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. NYU Press, 2018.

Gaining insight over fixing problems: how open ended research can teach us what we need to know

November sunset in Guelph

I was so pleased to be invited to the University of Guelph library by Karen Nicholson and Ali Versluis to give a talk and also to talk with people in the library about user experience and ethnographic research in library and education contexts. This was the last talk that I gave during my November Tour, and I think it came together the most solidly of the four (there’s something to be said for the repetition of experiences in getting things right, note to self). I would also like to thank Chris Gilliard for reading early drafts of this, and helping me clarify some of my argument. Thanks to Jason Davies for the Mary Douglas citation. And credit as well to Andrew Asher, who was my research partner in some of the work I talk about here.

I wrote this talk at my home, in what is now called North Carolina, in the settler-occupied land of the Catawba and Cherokee people.   I am a Cajun woman, and my people are a settler people from the Bayou Teche, on Chitimacha land in what is now called Louisiana.  

I want to  acknowledge here the Attawandaron people on whose traditional territory the University of Guelph stands and offer my respect to the neighboring Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Métis.  

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A few years ago, Andrew Asher and I were hired to do a project for an international non-profit that provides electronic resources to libraries in less well resourced countries.  The organization was aware that there were low use and high use institutions that they were providing resources for, and wanted to know why that difference was there.

So we interviewed people in Zambia, and in Kyrgyzstan, in places that this organization told us didn’t have connectivity issues.  While there might not have been connectivity issues on the university campuses, the practical experience of connectivity was not consistent, as people were not always on campus.  As researchers, we encountered this as a problem early on, for example not being able to use Skype for interviews because of connectivity problems. We ended up doing a mix of Skype to call mobile phones, and WhatsApp to conduct interviews in locations where the internet was not reliable for our participants. 

Among the things we found out, in the course of our research, was things like in Zambia,  people who wanted to have faster internet bought ISP “rabbits,” to gain access off campus. We interviewed a  PhD candidate in Engineering who made the point that unless you were on the university network (Eduroam), you could not use university materials (such as library resources).  Therefore, using the faster, more reliable (but more expensive) rabbit modems in Zambia locked students and staff out of their institutional resources.  

We interviewed a Lecturer in Education with similar issues, even though he was at a “high-use” institution.  It wasn’t that the subscriptions weren’t there, or the resources not theoretically available, but that connectivity made those resources less useful, as they were difficult to get to:

“Yes, like I was telling you, either you subscribe to some journal publisher and because of poor connectivity, you may not get access to those services.  So it’s basically attributed to poor connectivity. Not that the institution does not have the information, the information could be there but the connectivity limits us from getting access.  Cause the system gets to be slow.”

This scholar did point out that doesn’t happen too frequently, so he wasn’t going to complain too much about access.  But he highlighted what’s at stake when those failures happen: he can’t do his work.  

“Basically, I can just say that is it poor connectivity and when there’s poor connectivity and there’s something that I urgently need to confirm because like when I’m reading a journal article where somebody has cited somebody.  There are times when I actually need to read the other article or if it’s a book which they refer to so I’ll probably have to go online to download and if there is not connectivity then that becomes a problem.”

Our research revealed that use of resources (or lack thereof) wasn’t just about connectivity, it was also about culture, and the separation that scholars experienced from the people working in the library.  One librarian we spoke to made it clear that the levels of authentication that scholars found burdensome were there on purpose to make sure that only the right people could have access to them. That, however, translated to even the “right people” using those resources less, or not at all, preferring to spend their precious internet time on getting to resources that were more easily accessible, even if not institutionally provided.

In Kyrgyzstan, one scholar assumed that because the physical collection in the library was out of date and inadequate, the electronic resources would be, too.

So, scholars in these two countries, in both “high” and “low” use institutions according to the non-profit, acquired and shared resources via printing, email, and thumb drives more often (and more reliably) than getting resources online via the resources paid for and provided by the organization.  

The implications we drew out were as follows:

  • Providing materials “online” is not the same as providing “access” when the internet is not a sure thing.  Also, having a connection is not the same thing as being connected enough to make using online resources a feasible option. There are many barriers to accessing library materials that are outside of the library’s own systems and infrastructure.  
  • Scholars find what they need, and what is accessible–if they Google something and it’s closed-access, they move on until they find something they can use.  The existence of the materials does not necessarily translate into its use.  
  • The disconnect of the library from the research workflow of the scholars interviewed here was striking, especially in the context of their awareness for the need for training, and knowledge about how to better navigate useful resources.  For example, one Lecturer in Education was at her current institution for 4 years before she knew about electronic resources, and then it wasn’t until she had started her PhD studies at another institution.

And our recommendations were things like:  pay attention to physical infrastructure when you offer online resources to institutions.  Consider offering resources in digital forms that aren’t just online. Think about facilitating more networking and connections between the people in the library and their surrounding community of scholars.  Basically, we told them context matters, and that the non-profit, in providing online resources, was operating as if they were in a vacuum.

Our report had to do with infrastructure, economics, and the lives of the scholars (faculty and students)–The non-profit wanted a problem to fix, and in many ways that was reasonable–it cost money for them to provide these resources, and wanted to avoid wasting resources.  What we as researchers presented them with was an exploration of the contexts in which the people they were trying to help (via libraries) were restricted in what was or wasn’t possible.  

We did not provide them with a quick-fix solution.  In many ways, the questions they wanted to ask were inevitably going to have disappointing answers.  

And well, the qualitative work we did wasn’t satisfying, short-term, but I think it’s important nonetheless.

Why was our research unsatisfying? Well, to some extent, the reason is the culture of libraries.  

I will point again to the article “Ethnographish” that Andrew and I wrote.   We wrote it in a moment, several years into our collective work as anthropologists working in libraries, where we wanted to try to think critically about why the work we were doing looked the way it did.  And also why particular kinds of work (especially open-ended exploratory ethnography) was so hard for us to do.  

Our argument is:  open-ended exploratory research is a hard sell in libraries.  We see UX research not just because it’s useful, but because it’s finite, and in particular because it’s proposing to solve specific problems.

“Libraries are notoriously risk averse. This default conservative approach is made worse by anxiety and defensiveness around the role of libraries and pressures to demonstrate value. Within this larger context, where the value of libraries is already under question, open-ended, exploratory ethnographic work can feel risky.“ (Lanclos and Asher 2016)

I think that in positioning themselves as problem-solvers, libraries and library workers are positioning themselves in a tactical way.  DeCerteau’s distinction here between kinds of agency (tactical vs. strategy) is useful here, helping us think about the kinds of actors who are allowed choices given their structural position.  To what extend to libraries and library workers get to make decisions that aren’t just tactical, not just reactions to situations? How and when do libraries and library workers get to make strategic decisions?  Because that has to be more than just responding to demands and solving problems.  

A while ago I gave a talk at a CUNY event that advocated for the mixed-methods library.  Lots of assessment departments talk about (and some do) both qualitative and quantitative (though I still stand by my impression that a lot of qualitative stuff is UX-style “what is the problem” approaches.).  I gave that talk in 2014, and at the time, part of what I was pointing to was the need to get insights that numbers would not give us.  

For example, I worked with a university that participated in the Measuring Information Service Outcomes survey.  Some of the bar charts we can generate from this data look like this:

 We have all of these numbers, what do they mean?  What does “satisfied with the library” mean, anyway?  Can graphs like these tell us anything?  

In that talk 2014 I actually said “I don’t[ want to get rid of quantitative measures in libraries” but now in 2019 (and actually, way earlier than that) I decided it wasn’t my job to advocate for quantitative anything, and not just because lots of other people are already advocating for that.

Because now in 2019,  quantification and problem fixing orientations have landed us with learning analytics, and library analytics, and I think there’s a lot more at stake than “these bar charts don’t tell us enough” (which was bad enough).  We have arrived here in part because somewhere along the way arguments accompanied by numbers were interpreted as Most Persuasive (I think we get to thank Economists, as a discipline, for this, given their infiltration into popular news media as commentators).  

Being able to categorize people also feels like a constructive action, a first step towards knowing how to “help” people (and categories are certainly central to particular practices in librarianship, and yeah they come with their own troubled history, as anyone who’s read critical work on LOC or Dewey systems will attest).  

So let’s think about the impact of categorizing and quantifying academic work, including the work of libraries.  Let’s think about what we are doing when we put people into categories, and then make decisions about capability based on that.  And yeah. Pop culture quizzes, and even sometimes those management personality tests can be fun.

Where it all ceases to be fun is when decisions get made on your behalf based on the results.

Frameworks and quizzes and diagnostics (what I like to call the “Cosmo Quiz” school of professional development) are often deployed with the result that people decide what “type” they are to explain why they are doing things.  Pointing to individual “types” and motivations provides an easy end-run around organizational, structural, cultural circumstances that might also be the reasons for practice. Because then when there are problems, it is up to the individual to “fix it”

What are we doing when we encourage people to diagnose themselves, categorize themselves with these tools?  The underlying message is that they are a problem needing to be fixed (fixes to be determined after the results of the questionnaire are in)

The message is that who they are determines how capable they are.  The message is that there might be limits on their capabilities, based on who they are

The message is that we need to spend labor determining who people are before we offer them help.  Such messages work to limit and contain people, rather than making it easy for people to access the resources they need, and allow themselves to define themselves, for their identity to emerge from their practice, from their own definitions of self.

When UX workers use personas (another way of categorizing people) to frame our testing of websites, we have capitulated to a system that is already disassociated from people, and all their human complexity.  The insidious effect of persona-based arguments is to further limit what we think people are likely to do as particular categories. Are first year students going to do research? Do undergraduates need to know about interlibrary lending?  Do members of academic staff need to know how to contact a librarians?  Why or why not? If we had task-based organizing structures in our websites, it wouldn’t matter who was using them.  It would matter far more what they are trying to do.  

I am informed in this part of my argument by  anthropologist Mary Douglas on How Institutions Think, and in particular that institutions are socially and culturally constructed, and that they themselves structure knowledge and identity.  Douglas’ work allows us to think of personas and other kinds of personality test-categories as “patterns of authority”, not just ways of trying to make things clear, but as ways of reifying current structural inequalities, and categories that limit people and their potential. When institutions do the classifying the resulting patterns are authoritative ones, the profiles that suggest plans of action come at the expense of  individual agency, and implies that the institutional take on identity is the definitive one that determines future “success.” 

What are the connotations of the word “profile?”  If you have a “profile” that is something that suggests that people know who you are and are predicting your behavior.  We “profile” criminals. We “profile” suspects. People are unjustly “profiled” at border crossings because of the color of their skin, their accent, their dress. 

“Profiles” are the bread and butter of what Chris Gillard has called “digital redlining:” ”a set of education policies, investment decisions, and IT practices that actively create and maintain class boundaries through strictures that discriminate against specific groups.“  His work is at “the intersections of algorithmic filtering, broadband access, privacy, and surveillance, and how choices made at these intersections often combine to wall off information and limit opportunities for students.”

“Now, the task is to recognize how digital redlining is integrated into technologies, and especially education technologies, to produce the same kinds of discriminatory results. (Gilliard and Culik 2016) “

Chris gave in his recent Educause talk some examples of what he calls “EdTech WTF moments”

  • “Facemetrics tracks kids’ tablet use. Through the camera, patented technologies follow the kids’ eyes and determine if the child is reading, how carefully they are reading, and if they are tired. “You missed some paragraphs,” the application might suggest.
  • In a promotional video from BrainCo, Students sit at desks wearing electronic headbands that report EEG data back to a teacher’s dashboard, and that information purports to measure students’ attention levels. The video’s narrator explains: “School administrators can use big data analysis to determine when students are better able to concentrate (Gilliard 2019).”

One problem is that it’s possible to extract quantified behavioural data from systems, in a context (e.g., libraries) where quantified data is perceived as most persuasive 

What gets lost in quantification is not just the Why and How (quantification is really good with the What, and occasionally Where), but also the privacy, safety, and dignity of the people whose data you are extracting.  This is a “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” situation, especially when we consider our responsibility to people who are already over-surveilled, hypervisible, and structurally vulnerable (i.e., Black, brown, and Indigenous people)

Let’s look at this Guardian article, on student surveillance, and here I’m guided again by Chris Gilliard’s deep dive on this article

https://twitter.com/hypervisible/status/1186625050184732672

Basically, companies like Bark and Gaggle are using school worries about liability around school shootings and student suicides and bullying as a lever by which they gain access to the schools.  They sell “security” when what they are actually peddling is “surveillance.”  

In this article none of the concerned parties are talking about gun control, or human systems of care that can deal with mental health issues, address discrimination against LGBTQ+ kids, racial bias, and so on.  The companies are selling results that are not borne out by the research they hand wave towards. They are counting on people being too scared not to engage with these systems, because they feel helpless

(sound familiar?)

Read the damn thing yourself too, it’s terrifying to me: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/22/school-student-surveillance-bark-gaggle

And of course It gets worse–as I was writing this talk a bill was introduced by US Republican senators to make school engagement with this tech (and these tech companies) MANDATORY.

Thanks to Chris Gilliard and his work, I am also aware of Simone Browne’s work Dark Matters: on the Surveillance of Blackness.  In this book, she writes a black feminist, critical race studies informed take on surveillance studies.  She points particularly to the history of surveillance technology as being one that emerges from the white supremacist  need to police black people, black bodies. Her examples include enslavement trading practices of the 1800s, the tracking and control of enslaved people via paper permits and laws about carrying lanterns after dark, and she makes it clear that this history is relevant to current discussions of how we make people visible, in what circumstances, and why.  We cannot disentangle race and inequality from our discussions of these technologies, nor should we try to in a quest for “neutrality” or “objectivity.”

The surveilling gaze is institutionally white, and furthermore, as Browne demonstrates in her book, that the technologies and practices of surveillance have a deep history in the colonization and enslavement of black and indigenous people.  The history of current surveillance practices involves the production and policing of racialized categories of people, in particular blackness and black people, so that they can be controlled and exploited.  

We need to think too about the racist context in which data is generated and collected, as in the case with health care data used to generate algorithms intended to guide health care decisions.   In Ruha Benjamin’s perspective piece in that same issue of Science, she notes that researchers “found that because the tool was designed to predict the cost of care as a proxy for health needs, Black patients with the same risk score as White patients tend to be much sicker, because providers spend much less on their care overall. “

While surveillance and tracking are clearly forms of control, and the use of algorithms is a problem, their use is often framed as care (again, see the people interviewed and quoted in the Guardian article, and this is an argument I hear in library contexts too, “we need the data to care for students and faculty.”)

Insisting that people have to participate in systems that harvest their data to have access to education or health care is a kind of predatory inclusion.  

“Predatory inclusion refers to a process whereby members of a marginalized group are provided with access to a good, service, or opportunity from which they have historically been excluded but under conditions that jeopardize the benefits of access. Indeed, processes of predatory inclusion are often presented as providing marginalized individuals with opportunities for social and economic progress. In the long term, however, predatory inclusion reproduces inequality and insecurity for some while allowing already dominant social actors to derive significant profits (Seamster 2017).”

When people become aware that they are under surveillance, there can be a ”chilling effect” where they do not engage with the system at all.  This is refusal, not engaging with the system because of wariness of what might happen if they do.  We need to consider carefully the disparate effect some of these methods of surveillance may have on trans students, undocumented students, and other vulnerable populations.  

Our role as educators, as workers within education, should be to remove barriers for our students and faculty (and ourselves), not give them more.

We also need to think critically about whether the systems we are extracting data from accurately reflect the behaviors we are interested in.  For example, borrowing histories, swipe card activity records, and attendance tracking are all proxies for behaviors, not direct observations, and not necessarily accurate representations of behaviors (even as they might seem precise, and make us feel good about our precision biases).

And if you are worried about “How will we know…X” please do not assume that these systems are the only way.  Because the vendors selling these systems that collect this problematic data want you to THINK that it’s the best and only way to find things out.  But that is not true.  

The fight against quantification, pigeonholing, surveillance and tracking should include qualitative research engagement –like the stuff that I do, like the stuff I try to write about and train people to do, and encourage them to try–engagement with the people from whom we want to learn, and with whom we want to work.  I would even suggest that the lack of “scalability” of qualitative methods is a benefit, if what we want is to be able to push back against surveillance and automated systems.

It’s about more than being able to be strategic on behalf of libraries and library workers, but also being able to create space for students and faculty to be strategic, to exercise power and agency in a context that increasingly wants to remove that, and put people at the mercy of algorithms.  This is particularly dangerous for already vulnerable people–Black and brown, Indigenous, women, LGBTQ+ people. Exploratory ethnographic approaches, engaging with people as people (not as data points) gives us not just more access to the whys and hows of what they are doing, but can work to connect us with them, to build relationships, so that we don’t have to wonder for long “why are they doing that.”  Then we won’t have to listen to people who rely on machines and their broken proxies for human behavior and motivations.  

Further Reading and Resources

LIBRARY TRENDS, Vol. 68, No. 1, 2019 (“Learning Analytics and the Academic Library: Critical Questions about Real and Possible Futures,” edited by Kyle M. L. Jones), © 2019 The Board of Trustees, University of Illinois

Benjamin, Ruha, “Assessing risk, automating racism,”  Science 25 Oct 2019: Vol. 366, Issue 6464, pp. 421-422.  DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz3873 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6464/421.full

Browne, Simone. Dark matters: On the surveillance of blackness. Duke University Press, 2015.

de Certeau, Michel, and Steven Rendall. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 2011.

Douglas, Mary. How institutions think. Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Gilliard, Chris “Digital Redlining”  featured session, EDUCAUSE conference, Chicago, October 16, 2019.  https://events.educause.edu/annual-conference/2019/agenda/digital-redlining

Gilliard, Chris and Hugh Culik “Digital Redlining, Access and Privacy”  Privacy Blog, Common Sense Education, May 24, 2016, https://www.commonsense.org/education/privacy/blog/digital-redlining-access-privacy 

Lanclos, Donna, and Andrew D. Asher. “‘Ethnographish’: The State of the Ethnography in Libraries.” Weave: Journal of Library User Experience 1.5 (2016).  https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/weave/12535642.0001.503?view=text;rgn=main

Obermeyer, Ziad, and Sendhil Mullainathan. “Dissecting Racial Bias in an Algorithm that Guides Health Decisions for 70 Million People.” Proceedings of the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency. ACM, 2019. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6464/447 

Safiya Umoja Noble. Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. NYU Press, 2018.

Seamster, Louise, and Raphaël Charron-Chénier. “Predatory inclusion and education debt: Rethinking the racial wealth gap.” Social Currents 4.3 (2017): 199-207. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2329496516686620?journalCode=scua

Watters, Audrey. (2014) “Ed-tech’s Monsters”  Hack education, Sept 3, http://hackeducation.com/2014/09/03/monsters-altc2014

The Anthropologist in the Machine: Opening Plenary for #TESS2019

The view from #TESS2019

I gave four talks in the span of two weeks this November, and this talk was the third one.  I had the great pleasure of being invited by eCampusOntario to speak to the TESS conference, attended by a group of educators from across Ontario who teach and work in digital environments.  It was my first time in Toronto, my first time with this particular group of people, and I was so glad I was invited.  

The talk I proposed to give is the one that I will now try to represent as a blogpost.   Some of this is chunks of other talks that I have given, but ultimately put together to make (I hope) a different set of points. It’s also pretty long.

I need to thank here not just the eCampusOntario folks for inviting me, but also Benjamin Doxtdator, who read and commented on earlier versions of this talk, and also Lawrie Phipps, who recommended me to the TESS organizing committee as a speaker.  Thank you.

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I am an anthropologist, and the machines I find myself within are multiple.  The relevant ones today are the digital machines that create the online places in which (some of) education and scholarship take place, and also the machine of education itself, in which I have been a participant nearly my entire life, and which I currently make my field site as an anthropologist.

I spend a lot of time online, not just for work (alas?), and so I witness and participate in conversations, both as a part of my anthropological approach–“deep hanging out” borrowing from Geertz (1998)–and also just as one of the ways that I am in the world.  

So when this story in the Atlantic came across my feed I engaged with it with a fair amount of anger.  

I am tired of discussions of libraries and education that are  zero sum games. In this article, the ignorance of practice in libraries leads the author to suggest that anything other than offering the “basics” is “fancy”

This is the false dichotomy of the traditional-looking past (and present) vs. the whiz-bang “innovative” future.  And suggests that to serve students well, libraries need to choose one over the other–and furthermore, the article suggests that students do not think that libraries are choosing wisely.

My argument is that this framing is all wrong.  You cannot have basics or innovation without fully funding education (including libraries).

Barbara Fister joined the conversation via one of her Library Babel Fish columns, in which she said:  “Let’s give ourselves room to try new things while also maintaining things that have enduring value and stop thinking about it as a competitive zero-sum game.”  

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick pointed out further 

Kaetrena’s point about creativity, not innovation as it has been packaged and sold to us by vendors, is key here.  How can educators have access to free range experimentation without creativity?

What we tend to see in education these days is a concern with “innovation” and so we need to talk about the relationship that it has with technology.  

In April 2019 a report came out from the Department of Education in England. This government document set out a vision for the use of technology in education.  And even though not all of us are in the UK, the approach this report takes is instructive for its emphasis on markets rather than educational practice.    

That DfE report came out just after Lawrie Phipps and I had presented on findings from work we had carried out in 2018-19, on the teaching practices of lecturers in HE and FE.  We released this report at Jisc’s Digifest in March, the same month that our article on this same work was published in the Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning.  The report and the article describe and discuss the results of our in-depth qualitative research project

The research that Lawrie and I did seems to me the antithesis of that DfE report.  While that report started with technology, and assumed that there wasn’t enough of it, Our assumptions were:

  • People who teach have practices that involve digital.  
  • People have expertise, and make reasoned decisions around what to do and not do. 

In our approach to this project we did not start off asking about technology (even though our research questions definitely were about technology in teaching and learning contexts).  We started off asking about teaching.

And in talking about teaching practices, we learned a lot about the contexts in which people are engaged in teaching.  And the nature of support.  

“The opportunities in which innovation can happen are largely invisible to staff who are struggling with institutionally provided technology and teaching environments that are barriers to their teaching.”  L. Phipps & D. Lanclos (2018) p. 81

In institutional contexts where people do not have the time, organizational support, or access to resources that would allow for exploration around new tech, or using old tech in new ways, it’s not hard to see why “innovation” is hard to come by.  And also easy to see that “more tech” or “use the tech more” or even “create a market more friendly to vendors” isn’t going to produce more creativity. Or, more effective teaching and learning contexts.

In asking about teaching, we also learned a great deal about the networks, about the relationships in which people learn about and develop their teaching practices.  

“We also wish to draw attention to the discussion of how important and occasionally fugitive networks are in developing, maintaining, and growing teaching practices.  It is striking how difficult networks are to build and maintain without institutional support for the time and other resources such networking requires. Even as the UK has a number of national frameworks and organizations dedicated to HE and FE teaching, there remains an uneven sense of access to such structures, and the development that they might offer to people teaching in the sector. The distance between the networks people wish they had and the extra-institutional structures available for development of teachng is something that needs attention.  “ L. Phipps & D. Lanclos (2018) p. 83

This speaks to the importance of networks for impact, and also the importance of digital in maintaining networks, especially for people who are far away from the “center” (and all the problems that the center-periphery setup hold)  

In the UK, London sucks the energy out of the rest of the country, and educators outside of London often struggle to see and be seen by peers, and to learn from them (and to teach them about their own practice).  This is not unique, and I’m willing to bet that’s also the case with Greater Toronto Area in relation to Ontario, or even within Toronto, as there will be pockets in any big city that are better resourced and more visible within networks than others.

The notion of “hinterlands” is a colonial one, and certainly one that bears scrutiny and breakdown.  Anyone’s center is relative to where they are. So, part of what digital connection can do is provide a chance to de-center the place with the most gravity in terms of funding, and power, and boost the voices and practices of folks who would otherwise have to struggle to be seen and heard.

For example, I look to practices on Twitter that de-centering historic power structures (doesn’t make them go away, just gives another channel for building outside of pre-existing hierarchies)–a way to find and make an impact that hasn’t historically been available to everyone.  I have been on Twitter since 2011, and still see a big chunk of it as a conference that you can actually go to without airfare, hotels, travel. It is, for all of its problems as a commercial platform, also a digital place that can enable the connections that people can make to each other.

In my work in libraries and education technology  I am and always have been an anthropologist–and that comes with its own intense colonizing baggage, and a responsibility on my part to be better than my discipline has historically been

For example, the Nuer’s encounter with anthropology was one in which the colonial government was learning about them to try to control them   After his initial fieldwork among the Azande in the Sudan, EE Evans Pritchard was hired by the Anglo-Egyptian government because of their conflict with the Nuer in 1920s.  Colonial governors thought if they had more information about the people they wanted to control, they would be able to do so more effectively, so they brought in Evans-Pritchard to do anthropological work.  Their desire for control was not met, but they tried, and with the help of anthropologists.  

Franz Boas took up anthropology as his life’s work after his previous academic life as a physicist, who wrote a dissertation on the color of seawater. He is known as the Father of American Anthropology, and a champion of anti-scientific racism.  In the late 19th and early 20th century–the “extinction narrative” had already quite caught hold, and Indigenous people in North America were the object of study at least in part because they were framed as “disappearing.”  19th century anthropology co-occurred with the systematic dispossession, persecution, and killing of indigenous peoples, the “salvage anthropology” that followed in the 20th century referred to “disappearing” people as if they were fading, not being colonized and displaced by white settlers.  This is what Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández call “replacement”–the systematic and violent substituting of white settler people for Indigenous people.   Anthropology is complicit in this process, freezing people in a particular ethnographic present, facilitating their erasure from any future, and their invisibility in the present.

In the mid-20th century, during the second World War, anthropological knowledge was leveraged as a way to better understand and so (it was presumed) control the US’s conquered enemies, the Japanese.  Ruth Benedict did “armchair anthropology” during WWII, and her resulting work informed the occupation strategies by the US of Japan after the war.  Benedict’s anthropological work was complicit in the military mission of controlling occupied Japan.

I turn in many of my talks and presentations to Margaret Mead.  There are problems with whose stories she told, and for what purpose, and I do not want to leave those out of her legacy.  In this context, I also want to point to the way her anthropological purposes shifted from those of institutional control to one of understanding, and it is for this that I value her work, in Samoa and also in Papua New Guinea.

Her intentions, and she was a student of Benedict, were to make the unfamiliar familiar.  And also, to make the familiar unfamiliar, to question the practices of her own culture (especially with regard to sexuality, adolescence, and childrearing).  She brought what she learned from other cultures back to her own, as a way of advocating for change. She used other cultural practices to feed her imagination, for what else might be possible.  This is Anthropology as a (potentially) transformative project

Why am I telling you this?  Many of you probably know the colonial history of anthropology.

I am telling this story of the different agendas of anthropologists because as an anthropologist, I take the mission of critique and change to heart.  For all of her flaws, Margaret Mead wanted to use her disciplinary practices to understand and transform her own culture, and change it–not to transform the cultures of the people from whom she was learning, and also not to control them.  

I do not want to facilitate erasure of people or practices, or to, with my work or my engagement with the work of educators, to suggest that I am “discovering” anything (as settler people have a terrible history of doing). I am concerned in my work with making practices visible, so that they can be recognized, and not always changed or “improved.”

I also want, via recognition of current practice and critique of institutions, to remind people that education, schools, and libraries are built things, are cultural artifacts, and are therefore not neutral.  Participation in schools is also a colonial practice

One of the 94 calls to action in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report resulted in the recent launch of a digital monument to 2800 Indigenous children who died in the residential schools.

Schools have a deadly and damaging history for Indigenous people globally, and very specifically locally as well.  This is the present, not the past, and we cannot build education futures without paying attention to the harms that settler education practices have done, and listen to people when they are (rightfully) skeptical of the place of schools in their lives and history.   The legacy of colonialism means that white people in particular have a responsibility to listen to Indigenous and black people when they do not engage, or only engage with each other in places that do not include settler whites.

I am under the impression that attending TESS are people who facilitate and support the work of teaching and learning–librarians, education technologists, instructional designers–as well as teachers and professors of education.  All of you, to my mind, are also students.

As people in the field of education, you (we) are often talked to about the “Future” of education.  That “Future” is too often couched in language that betrays that the people speaking don’t know much about what’s going on in education.  Sometimes, as we saw from the UK DfE report I mentioned earlier, they speak much more about markets than they do about education.

And I often see folks ostensibly concerned about the “Future” pointing to what they perceive as a deficit in digital capability, a lack of practice, to justify the change programs they are selling.

And, again, as an anthropologist, I find this interesting.  Because I have been brought in as a consultant into situations where the powers that be assumed that the people working for them “didn’t do digital.”  And then it turned out, once I ran the workshop, that there was plenty of digital practice, they just weren’t doing any of it in official channels at work because they did not feel valued, or safe.

This assumption that there is no practice is what I have called a “Terra Nullius” approach.  I don’t want to push this metaphor too far, because I don’t want to say that justifications for change initiatives are the same as the justification for colonization, dispossession, and genocide.

The terra nullius approach to digital (or any practice, really) takes away at least two things:  

1) the ability to recognize and encourage good practices, and 

2)  the ability to recognize and change practices that do not currently serve anyone particularly well.  

I know that the people attending TESS are already engaged in digital practices.  It is the core of the work you do, if you are not yourself teaching online, you are supporting folks who are, and students who are learning online.  So, already, no one gets to suggest that you have a deficit.  

There are likely choices you make about what you do and don’t engage with.  This is something I see in my own work, again not just with teachers but also with students These choices are not coming from a place of incapability, or ignorance, but from knowing what you do and don’t want to do.

Creativity cannot happen if people are having to fight the systems in which they work to do basic, baseline stuff, or if they are being punished for their informed choices by using systems that are in opposition to the ways they want to teach (for example:  Turnitin)

Perceived lack of “innovation” isn’t about digital capability or incapability, but about systems that get in the way of practice.  I agree with Kaetrena Davis Kendrick that we should be talking about creativity here

Current systems of inequality, of racism and colonization and sexism are also baked into current practice.  So it’s not ever going to be enough to identify effective practice, but to ask questions about what is not effective, and why.

So, when thinking about practice, and fit, and transformation, and innovation, we need to think about for whom? And at whose expense? 

I want us to work towards building a future grounded in present practice, informed by what should change as well as what is already effective.

Center and Periphery aren’t exclusively results of colonial practices, but they are characteristically so,  What if we try to dispense with the notion of center as primary practice, and pay attention to the local wherever we find it?  If we listen to the people in our respective communities, and be guided by them.

Eve Tuck and Rubén  A. Gaztambide-Fernández write of “settler futurity” where the future is imagined much like the colonized past and present, which has replaced Indigenous people with settler whites, and requires all people to assimilate to structures and behaviors that center whiteness, what they call “the whitestream”.  

An important antidote to the “whitestream” is the work of people who insist that they and their people are a part of the present, and will be in the future.  I offer the example of Africanfuturist Nnedi Okorafor, insisting through her work in SF that African people will also be in the future.

With The Initiative for Indigenous Futures, Indigenous people are making and imagining their futures, not consigned to a past, or erased from the present.  This is a refusal of settler futurity, an insistence that Indigenous people will create their own future with themselves in it.  And supporting Indigenous and Black futurity will require of white people that they not-act, and not-speak, and occasionally not-know what is going on.  

I want to again point to the history of Anthropology which has a goal of understanding practice, but does not always valuing those practices.  Anthropology was traditionally about learning and gaining critical insight from the practices of “the other” but I would rather frame it as learning from “people who are not you, to try to move away from some of the essentializing problems around othering people.

Rather than “periphery” let’s say local–what are the local practices that emerge from the priorities of the communities in which you work that can guide and contextualize teaching and learning practices?

What can people who have been historically centered (white, settler, cishet) learn when they decenter their practices, step back and learn from the practices of people who are not them?  And what happens when white people accept that they don’t always know what’s happening, and that’s OK? When met with refusal, that requires recognition and respect, not an insistence that historically marginalized, racialized, and colonized people “have to listen” or “should teach us.”  We have to learn from people without insisting that they teach us. We have to do the work.

Digital gives access to networks of people who can share practice and make space for creativity

We do not need corporations for creativity.  We need community. And support. Like we can find in places like TESS.

Who gets to experiment? Who decides what is impact? This is where critical consideration of power is key

In a time of austerity we must not choose basics instead of creativity.  Our community deserves better

In times of austerity, people’s creativity ends up consumed with “making do”–this is not just “more with less” but the challenge of “the same with less.”

If you have the power to experiment, if you have the space to be creative and have it be recognized as truly extra, not just “making do,” how do you share that?

If you have the power to experiment, and have it be recognized as extra, who does not?  Why is that? Are you white? Are you male? Who are you and what kind of privilege do you have?  Who around you can you share your privilege with? Or, even better, for whom can you step aside, can you make room?

We need to advocate for centering historically marginalized voices and experiences.

(And here in the talk is where I chickened out, and under-prepared.  I planned to point out that centering marginalized voices and experiences is the opposite of what the Toronto public library was doing by welcoming anti-trans speakers in their meeting rooms.  I ended up not doing that, and I am sorry.  I will try to do better next time, and prepare more fully to say all of the things.)

How can we support people to find their own answers?  How can we encourage the centering of people who have historically been marginalized–Indigenous people, black and brown people– to make their concerns and practices the drivers of change and maintenance in educational contexts?  

We need praxis–practice in a context of critical reflection and analysis.  We also need collective action. No single individual working alone can effect lasting and constructive change.

With praxis and collective action, then we have a solid foundation for a future that learns from the present.  And a way to avoid being cogs in our respective machines.  
I want to help create spaces for building the future that I want to see.  Don’t wait around for someone to predict your future for you

The idea that we might simply be handed or sold a predetermined future is terrifying.  

The future is co-created.  
Co-creation happens in spaces like TESS, and online sharing spaces, where people find opportunities to connect and to learn, and create new work building from existing practice.  These are the places and methods for embedding our practices in our human relationships. This is where we must build, together, the future of education.  

Nighttime Toronto

Additional References and Resources 

de jesus, nina. “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.” (2014). http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/locating-the-library-in-institutional-oppression/

Department for Education (2019). Realising the potential of technology in education: A strategy for education providers and the technology industry.  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/791931/DfE-Education_Technology_Strategy.pdf

Geertz, Clifford. “Deep hanging out.” The New York review of books 45.16 (1998): 69-72.

Johnson, D. (1982). Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, and the Sudan Political Service. African Affairs, 81(323), 231-246. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/721729

Lanclos, D., & Phipps, L. (2019). Trust, Innovation and Risk: a contextual inquiry into teaching practices and the implications for the use of technology. Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(1), 68 – 85. https://journal.ilta.ie/index.php/telji/article/view/53

Morris, S. M., and J. Stommel. “A Guide for Resisting EdTech: The Case Against Turnitin. Hybrid Pedagogy, 15.” (2017).

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015. https://nctr.ca/assets/reports/Final%20Reports/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf

Tuck, Eve, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. “Curriculum, replacement, and settler futurity.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 29.1 (2013).

Unsettling America (blog) https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/

White, David, and Donna Lanclos. “The resident Web and its impact on the academy.” Hybrid Pedagogy (2015).

November Tour 2019

RISD Photo Daniel Penfield https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RISD_auditorium.jpg
Toronto Image by James Wheeler from Pixabay
Carothers Library URI by Kenneth C. Zirkel https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:URI_Carothers_Library.jpg Hartford Connecticut Capitol Building Image by Esteban Rodriguez from Pixabay

November is a busy month for me,  and I’ve been getting ready (and fussing about it online) for the last while by writing talks and organizing folks.  It’s been a while since I’ve been “on tour” and I’m glad to be back into it.   So this is me trying to get my head around the upcoming 2 weeks of activity, please bear with me.

First up:  The Ethnographic Practice in Industry (EPIC) conference will be in Providence, RI from November 9-12, and I’ve been invited to chair a panel for it.  I’m super pleased with our lineup of speakers, and think that our discussion on Monday is going to be fantastic. I also expect I’ll be live-tweeting as much of it as I can at #epiconference.  

After that is over I will have to make sure I’ve reserved enough energy to give 2 talks that week.  Wednesday November 13th I’ll be at the University of Rhode Island (URI), thanks to the invitation of Karim Boughida.  The title of that talk is “Maybe We Shouldn’t Talk About Diversity Anymore”
“Donna Lanclos is an anthropologist and consultant in higher education and libraries, and is, as a white woman, the beneficiary the structural bias in favor of whiteness in libraries, and in academia generally.  She wants in this talk to confront the harms done in talking euphemistically about “diversity” when what we should be talking about , professionally and as educators, is about race, and social justice. “

The URI talk is open to the public, so come along if you can:

  • 12 noon Wednesday November 13th
  •  University of Rhode Island Library
  • 15 Lippitt Road Kingston, RI
  • Galanti Lounge, 3rd floor.

 The next day I’m getting to talk at Trinity College, thanks to Jason Jones.  The title of that talk is “Who gets to have Agency?”
““Universities and Colleges are increasingly able to use systems to quantify and automate administrative and educational processes.  What is at stake when they do this? What is lost? What can happen to students and faculty within these systems, and what are our responsibilities to protect them?  Donna Lanclos is an anthropologist and consultant who works with these issues as the conducts research, and helps teams within institutions think about and engage with technology in the course of their teaching, learning, and research work.  She points to some ways that qualitative research can be an antidote to some of the problems that arise when we reduce people to datapoints. “

 This is also open to the public:  Thursday November 14th, 12.15-1.15, Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut, Raether Library , room # LITC 181 https://www.trincoll.edu/Library/

And then the week after that  I’m also giving two talks.  The first one is for eCampusOntario’s Technology + Education Seminar + Showcase (TESS)  November 18-19.  eCampusOntario is a non-profit, funded by the province of Ontario, that seeks to advance technology-enabled teaching and learning in Ontario’s 45 publicly funded colleges and universities. Folks who want to learn more about eCampusOntario can sign up for its monthly newsletter

TESS is an annual event for promoting collaboration and sharing innovations across all eCampusOntario member institutions. This year, Day 1 of TESS features presentations on excellence in online teaching and learning. Day 2 involves cultivating in educators an “experimenter mindset” through some exploration of H5P and Pressbooks.

The theme For TESS this year is Experimentation and Impact.   I am pleased that eCampusOntario have invited me, to have the opportunity to finally visit Toronto, and also to be in a room with a new (to me) group of people..  This talk is called “The Anthropologist in the Machine”

“Experimentation and Impact require scrutiny and insight.  How do we build space for creativity in teaching and learning in digital contexts while maintaining and supporting current effective practices?  Anthropological approaches to digital practices in higher education can be a way to recognize what people in the field are currently doing, and more importantly, why.  It is the why that allows us access to the motivations and priorities of the communities in which we teach, the community members who want to learn, and how our practices can and should be bent to meet them, rather than insisting that communities change for educational institutions.
Dr Donna Lanclos is an anthropologist in the the machine; her field sites include education and the digital landscapes it inhabits. Her role in these machines of education and digital is to understand how they work, how people interact within the cogs and wheels of processes and ultimately to ensure that the machine is serving humanity rather than the machine itself. She argues for a move to decenter technology in discussions of teaching and learning–a challenge  in a time when colleges and universities are developing new strategies for digital at a prodigious rate. Putting staff under constant pressure to “innovate” in their practice is counterproductive if what we actually need is creativity.”

All of the tickets for this event have now been claimed, but I know the conference will be recorded, including my talk, so I will share it when I can. If you want a preview of the talk, and to hear me chatting with Terry Greene of Gettin’ Air about TESS and other things, check out the podcast site (as of this writing my particular interview is not up yet). And also listen to the other interviews, it’s quite a list.

AND THEN last but not least I get to go to the University of Guelph, (thanks to the invitation of Karen Nicholson and suggestion by Ali Verslius) and speak to folks there.  

Gaining Insight Over Fixing Problems: How Open-Ended Research Can Teach Us What We Need to Know

Donna Lanclos, researcher, speaker, writer, and anthropologist will be at U of G to deliver a talk about open-ended ethnography and relationship-building as an antidote to being “ethnographish,” surveillance, and quantification in higher education. 

Date: Wednesday, November 20, 2019, Time: 1:15 to 2:30 p.m. , Location: U of Guelph LIB Room 246A 

So now “all I have to do is pack,” and remember my travel docs and passport! I hope to see many of you soon.

Listening to Refusal: Opening Keynote for #APTconf 2019

Me delivering this talk , thanks to notes printed out at the last minute by Steve Rowett (thank you, Steve!) (photo by Lawrie Phipps)

On July 1st I had the great pleasure of delivering the opening keynote address to the APT Conference.  Before I try to represent my talk here, I need to thank the conference team, and especially Jason Davies, who contacted me last year to see if I would be interested in speaking at the event.  And I was, and I did, and I was glad to be there. When I got up to give this talk, I thanked the people in the room, and said “I hope I make you very uncomfortable.” I suppose the conference feedback will indicate whether or not I was successful.  (by the way, the slides and speaking notes for this talk are here. )

 In April 2019, right about the same time that I was thinking about what I wanted to say at APT, a report from the UK Department of Education came out, titled “Realising the Potential of Technology in Education:  a strategy for education providers and the technology industry”. 

This government document is to set the vision for the use of technology in education (specifically in England, but with implications for the rest of the UK).  So I wondered at its approach, but did not do so for long, as its emphasis was clear from the table of contents.  

This report centers the needs and desires of the tech industry.  It trades in deficit models, starts from the assumption that there’s not enough technology in educational contexts, and that more tech is the answer to “drive change”  

Words with the root “innov” (innovate, innovation, innovating, innovative) show up 43 times in this 48 page document.  Section 6 in particular gives the game away, with quite detailed concerns about the health and well-being of the edtech business sector in England, and the need for the industry to have streamlined access to education and educators. 

 The word “procurement” shows up 13 times, but “pedagogy” is nowhere in this report.  

The DfE report came out just after Lawrie Phipps and I had presented on findings from work we had carried out in 2018-19, on the teaching practices of lecturers in HE and FE.  We released this report at Jisc’s Digifest in March, the same month that our article on this same work was published in the Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning.  I’ve discussed the broad outlines of this research elsewhere in the blog (and if you like you can watch our presentation on our approach and methods here)–for the purposes of this talk, I wanted to focus on the way we framed the work, and contrast it to the DfE report, because the research that Lawrie and I did seems to me the antithesis of that government document.  While that report started with technology, and assumed that there wasn’t enough of it, Our assumptions were as follows:

  • People who teach have practices that involve digital.  
  • People have expertise, and make reasoned decisions around what to do and not do. 

In our approach to our project we did not start off asking about technology (even though our research questions definitely were about technology in teaching and learning contexts).  We started off asking about teaching.

Among the themes that emerged in our interviewees’ discussions about technology were the barriers and enablers to the uses of of that tech.  Nowhere in these barriers were “lack of access to education technology markets.” There were plenty of barriers that were human, and organizational.  Time, priorities, values, relationships, and trust (or lack thereof) all informed the extent to which people did or did not engage with technology, both institutionally provided, and otherwise.  

It was also made clear over the course of our research that there were things being done with technology that  were not particularly “innovative” (e.g., lectures, grading, depositing materials for consumption). During our analysis, when thinking about barriers to technology use and in particular to “innovation” we found that practitioners were struggling with the disconnect between what they need to do in the spaces their institution provides, and what is possible–before they ever get to what they want to do, or what they might not know about yet.  

In institutional contexts where people do not have the time, organizational support, or access to resources that would allow for exploration around new tech, or using old tech in new ways, it’s not hard to see why “innovation” is hard to come by.  And also easy to see that “more tech” or “use the tech more” or even “create a market more friendly to vendors” isn’t going to produce more innovation. Or, more effective teaching and learning contexts.

We have encountered, over the course of this research and also in the other work we do in the sector, a distinct lack of compliance around certain kinds of education technology.

For example:

Lecture Capture

We witnessed and heard about a lack of participation in lecture capture, in people not wanting to do it, citing concerns about labor exploitation and picket-line crossing, and even expressing fears of the wholesale replacement of lecturers with captured content.

VLE/LMS

We spoke to and also heard about academic staff who keep a minimal presence in the learning management system (course content, syllabi, calendars), but who engage in their actual teaching practices in digital contexts outside of institutional control.

Card Swipes

For this example, I told the story (shared with her permission) of a student who studied abroad as a part of her degree.  This experience led to a full time job before she had finished her time at university, and that job also made it financially possible for her to complete her university degree.  In her final year there was a conflict between (required) attendance in class and the times she needed to be on site at work. Her department had recently instituted card-swipes to track student attendance in class.  She worked with her head of department to get permission to not always be in class, and with that permission was “swiped in” by a classmate to satisfy institutional requirements.  

I have told elsewhere the story of students engaging in an elaborate ID card charade to get a non-student into the library space they wanted to study together in–in the end, four students went into the library, and the ID system only recorded three of their own students, not the fourth unaffiliated one.

An inordinate managerial focus on Compliance makes it hard to see actual practices.  The examples I list above show us that if we mistake what is reflected in the VLE/LMS, card-swipe systems, and only the lectures that are recorded for the holistic reality of teaching and learning practices, we are terribly wrong.  

Our “precision bias” means that the numbers given to us via card swipes and attendance records feel far more accurate than they actually are.  Knowing the behaviors that give us these numbers means we cannot trust them as proxies for what we want them to be. Attendance numbers don’t actually tell us much about the engagement of students with their courses of study.  Course content placed in institutional online places doesn’t necessarily reflect actual teaching practices. Card swipes in libraries that don’t represent who is actually in the building at any given time.  

One overarching message in these stories, and in the research project overall, was that lack of trust can be corrosive.  Not being able to trust your institution with your actual practices means that you don’t share, and they don’t know, what you are doing.

I gave a brief presentation earlier this year about our research findings around non-classroom digital spaces and practices.  After talking about the ways that instructors engaged with students in non-classroom non-LMS/VLE digital places, the main question I was asked was “How can we make them use the LMS?”

Too often the institutional response is concerned with compliance, and furthermore assumes that if people are not complying, perhaps it’s because they don’t know how to do the “thing.”  So then we end up with lots of workshops and webinars about How To X. How to embed your gradebook into Canvas. How to upload captured lectures into Moodle. How to take attendance using clickers or card swipes.  

I have been reading Dr. Simone Browne’s Dark Matters:  on the Surveillance of Blackness.  In this book, she writes a black feminist, critical race studies informed take on surveillance studies.  I was familiar with surveillance (being closely observed, especially by an institutional power such as police or military, but increasingly by corporations, and any entity with access to the stream of data we leave in our wake these days), but unfamiliar with Steve Mann’s concept of sousveillance, which he describes as a way of “enhancing the ability of people to access and collect data about their surveillance and to neutralize surveillance (61)”

So, an example of surveillance tech would  be CCTV. An example of sousveillance would be using cameras in your smart phones to film the police during a protest.  

Dr. Simone Browne introduced me to the idea of dark sousveillance:  a way to situate the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight (Dark Matters p. 21 in the Kindle Edition.)  In particular she is theorizing and describing the means by which racialized people avoid being seen, so that they cannot be victimized by the structures and practices of surveillance.  An example of such behavior would be publicizing where the cameras are, so that you can avoid them.

Central to the idea of dark sousveillance is the fact that the surveilling gaze is institutionally White, and furthermore, as Browne demonstrates in her book, that the technologies and practices of surveillance have a deep history in the colonization and enslavement of Black and indigenous people.  The history of current surveillance practices involves the production and policing of racialized categories of people, in particular blackness and black people, so that they can be controlled and exploited.  

Dark sousveillance is a refusal of the power structures of surveillance.  I am helped in making this connection with the work of Lilian G. Mengesha and Lakshmi Padmanabhan, who define refusal as “what we conceive of as disruptions to the vicious dialectic of assimilation and resistance” 

So in thinking again about surveillance, we can see that  assimilation would be having an Alexa in your house. Resistance would be hacking Alexa to observe only when you want it to.  Refusal is not having any such device in your house at all.  

The options of assimilation vs. opposition are still in reference to a given system, such as systems of gender relations, racial identity, and economic class.  Think of the revels of Mardi Gras, that serve to strengthen the message that you should observe Lent. The presence of The Fool requires that of a Monarch. There are fundamental assumptions and premises, hegemonies that are shot through these systems.  

Refusal is not participating in those systems, not accepting the authority of their underlying premises.  Refusal happens among people who don’t have access to structural power. Refusal is a rejection of framing premises.  Recognizing refusal requires attention, and credit to tactics such as obfuscation, or deliberate misinterpretation.  

“The tactics of refusal include:  illegibility, opacity, and inaction” (Mengesha and L. Padmanabhan 2019)

In making this argument about refusal, I want to point to some examples of what I mean.

Ethnographic refusal has been defined by Dr. Audra Simpson (an anthropologist and member of the Kahnawake Mohawk–Haudenosaunee people)  as “a willful distancing from state-driven forms of recognition and sociability” (2014)  (cited in L. G. Mengesha and L. Padmanabhan p. 3). In her discussion of doing work within her own community, she describes moments where the person she was talking to simply did not share what they knew.  Even if it was something “everyone knew”–it remained unspoken. And she, as an ethnographer and a Mohawk, joined in that refusal and did not write that information down, rejecting the assumption that anthropological knowledge requires the right to know everything.   

Think of any people among whom anthropologists want to do work, or on whose land archaeologists want to dig.  They have the right to refuse. They have the right to say No. And anthropologists historically have a difficult time with that, and continue to need to work on recognizing and respecting ethnographic refusal. 

Simpson suggests that there is a great deal that is generative about refusal, and theories of refusal–what we can learn from the limits that are indicated by refusal?

In 1997 I was still doing my own anthropological fieldwork in Northern Ireland, and this book by Begoña Arextaga came out.  The blanket protests in the H-blocks of Northern Ireland from 1976-1981) were an example of refusal.  Republican and Nationalist men who were “on the blanket” were refusing their assigned (by the British State) status of criminals, and asserting their status of political prisoners, protesting the removal of the Special Status that defined them differently from criminals by refusing and rejecting regular prison uniforms.  These protests ended when Thatcher’s government reinstated Special Status but only after the deaths of the hunger strikers, including Bobby Sands, in 1981. Arextaga’s focus on the political tactics of Nationalist women in Northern Ireland, including those who themselves participated in blanket protests, reveals not just their refusal of the status of common criminals, but a further rejection of the idea that as women they could not be political prisoners, or active participants in Nationalist/Republican struggles at all.

Refusal is an action, not just a lack of action.  It is exercising agency, not just “non compliance.”  So, faculty/academic staff refuse to use systems, such as an LMS/VLE, or lecture capture, refusing and rejecting the premise that they and their expertise can be reduced to a piece of content like a lecture, or a cache of powerpoint slides.

These choices are not about inability, or digital skills or capability.  These choices are made because of people’s concerns about how their labor can be exploited, taken advantage of, made invisible or redundant.  They are refusing in a context of lack of trust, precarious labor, and a de-valuing of academia and academic work.

This is the point where I remind you that the Luddites were not anti-machine, and I would point particularly to Audrey Watters’ discussion of the Luddites and their frequently misrepresented agenda here.  The act of the Luddite “isn’t about rejecting technology; but it is about rejecting exploitation (Watters 2014).”  Luddites broke machines in protest against factory practices that devalued and erased their labor.

To what extent is edtech a “Captivating Technology “ (to quote Dr. Ruha Benjamin in her introduction to her 2019 edited volume)–a technology of domination that embeds and fossilizes and perpetuates racial, economic, and other inequalities in the name of technosolutionist “neutral” fixes.  Benjamin argues we need “ethical engagement with technoscience, where the zeal for making new things is tempered by an ability to listen to the sounds and stories of people and things already made.(9)” 

Benjamin asks, “How, then, might we craft a justice-oriented approach to technoscience? It starts with questioning breathless claims of techno-utopianism, rethinking what counts as innovation, remaining alert to the ways that race and other hierarchies of difference get embedded in the creation of new designs, and ultimately refashioning the relationship between technology and society by prioritizing justice and equity.” (11)

Education technology is still technology.  People generate systems of classification to contain and control, and we need to ask, what racialized logics are embedded in the ways we point systems at students with concerns for their “success?”  Or that require staff compliance with edtech systems in the name of consistency, or quality control? Do we assume there aren’t any such logics? 

Do we assume or insist that “they can trust us?”  We do that at our peril, and theirs too, especially in a larger context where vulnerable students and staff are already under surveillance, where technology is implicated and embedded in the ways that race, gender, and class are produced and reinforced.  What reasons do students have to trust, given that context? Representatives of institutions cannot simply say “trust me” and have that come to pass.

We can find examples of refusal in specifically educational contexts, too.  The recent UIC graduate student strike is a refusal to work until the material conditions and their labor contracts (especially their pay, and health care provisions) were improved, in an overwhelming context of lack of trust in institutions, and overall economic and political precarity.

An archivist at Hollins University, in Virginia, USA, refused to withdraw examples of students in blackface in yearbook pictures in the university archives.  They did not trust the motives of their institution in removing those images, and called it out publicly on social media.

A group of faculty members at Yale withdraw their labor from the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program because of a historical lack of resources and other structural support, as well as insufficient institutional recognition of their labor.  Dr. Tricia Matthew, at the time, highlighted that the problem was in part one of classifying labor as a “service,” something antithetical to robust program-building at universities.  Recently Yale seems to have made assurances that new structural support will be made available to ER&M, and faculty members have “recommitted” to the program.

When we pay attention to the refusals of students and faculty, we learn more about what is at stake, and what is actually happening.  We also need to ask, if people cannot refuse, what does it mean? 

Do we want to define education as control and compliance, rather than growth?

What are the limits of refusal?  What does that tell us about power and the structures we have to navigate?  

And there are many things we should be refusing:

  •  Quantification
  •  Employability narratives
  •  Tracking and Surveillance
  •  Technocentrism
  •  “More with Less”

Those things are emerging from the wrong way to frame education, if we value it as a form of social justice (and we should).

The framing of education as a place to sell more tech, as a potential market for a home-grown edtech silicon valley, rather than a common good to be opened up to as many people and practices as possible, this framing is a political act

The narrowing of education to a credential that gets you a job is a political act

I have mentioned the tactics of refusal–in discussions of agency, and notions of what people can do in their given contexts, it’s useful to remember and incorporate deCerteau’s definitions of tactic vs. strategy

Tactical refusal comes from a position of no power.  People will be exerting what agency they can, and we can learn from tactical refusals, seeing them as ways of communicating as well as trying to survive

So then strategic refusal would come from a position of power, but one that acts to dismantle current structures of power on behalf of powerless people.  Those of you who have power, what refusals can you make on behalf of the people who work for you, or for your students? How can we create situations where it’s possible for more people to refuse strategically (as in a strike, as in collective action?)

I want to emphasize again the importance of power structures in definitions of  refusal–we need to recognize that those with less power are the ones who are doing the refusing, the rejecting of the structures that disempower, misrepresent, and potentially victimize them.  

As Dr. Sara Ahmed notes:

“A struggle against power is a struggle for a right to no, a right not to agree with what you are asked to do or to be.”

What does any of this have to do with Education technology?

When people refuse (for example) to use the VLE/LMS, capture their lectures, or take attendance with digital tools, very often the institutional response is 1)  “they aren’t capable, we should do more training” or 2) “We need to make them comply, or some combination of 1 and 2.

The lens of refusal gives us option 3)  “they have reasons for saying no.”

This appeals to me, an anthropologist, as I am a big fan of my discipline’s conviction that there is an underlying logic to the behavior of people.  Even if it’s not immediately apparent to the observer.

The correct response therefore isn’t “How can we make them comply” but “Why are they refusing?  Have we done something wrong?”

And then you FIND OUT.

I gave a talk once where I cautioned libraries not to invite anthropologists into their midst if the reasons they wanted to learn about people was to make them do the “right thing” in the library.  The right way to go is to invite anthropologists to help libraries think critically about their practices, and change those practices so that people’s myriad needs can be more effectively met.

Not prediction.

Not persuasion.

Recognition.

Recognize the refusal.  Recognize it as evidence that something is wrong with what you are doing, as an institution.  Possibly the wrong is outside of your institution, but erupting within it (like student homelessness.  Like lack of access to mental health care. Like lack of funding for higher and further education). Take heed in Dr. Sara Ahmed’s reminder that the person who says no, the person who registers a complaint, is far too often framed as the problem, rather than seeing the thing they point to or refuse as the problem

Then your actions cannot just be about pedagogy and systems, but must be about politics and policy.

We, the people in the (APT) room, are trying to enhance, improve, change the practices we see. We use lots of change management approaches, we use technology and there is a tendency to see resistance and refusal as a way of disengaging, or as evidence of incapability. But most of the people I have worked with, and interviewed, or taught with, when they get to the point of refusal it is because of none of these things.

I would point to the example of the government (in particular the Prime Minister) of New Zealand trying to define the value of their economy not around growth, but around well-being.  What if, instead of caring so much about growth of tech sector, or compliance with uses of technology within institutions, we cared about well-being of our students and staff?  What would that look like?

We need to stop seeing refusal as evidence that there’s something wrong with the people doing the refusing.  We need to see refusal as evidence that there is something wrong that they are communicating about, something wrong with the systems they are being presented with, with the structures in which they are placed.  And then we need to take responsibility for changing things. Value the people who refuse, because it is from those people that you can learn, and then work to build a more effective, more powerful set of practices within your institution.

Further Reading:

WOC Faculty (2018) “A Collective Response to Racism in Academia” Medium, May 8, https://medium.com/@wocfaculty/a-collective-response-to-racism-in-academia-35dc725415c1

Ahmed, Sara, (2017) “No” feministkilljoys, June 30, https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/06/30/no/

Browne, Simone. Dark matters: On the surveillance of blackness. Duke University Press, 2015.

Department for Education (2019). Realising the potential of technology in education: A strategy for education providers and the technology industry.  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/791931/DfE-Education_Technology_Strategy.pdf

Lanclos, D., & Phipps, L. (2019). Trust, Innovation and Risk: a contextual inquiry into teaching practices and the implications for the use of technology. Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(1), 68 – 85.  https://journal.ilta.ie/index.php/telji/article/view/53

Mann, S., Nolan, J., & Wellman, B. (2003). Sousveillance: Inventing and using wearable computing devices for data collection in surveillance environments. Surveillance & society, 1(3), 331-355.

Matthew, P. A. (Ed.). (2016). Written/unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure. UNC Press Books.

Mengesha, L., & Padmanabhan, L. (2019). Introduction to Performing Refusal/Refusing to Perform. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 1-8.

Rahman, Zara, (2019) “Can data ever know who we really are?” Deep Dives, Medium, May 15.  https://deepdives.in/can-data-ever-know-who-we-really-are-a0dbfb5a87a0

Benjamin, R. (Ed.). (2019). Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life. Duke University Press.

Simpson, A. (2007). On ethnographic refusal: indigeneity,‘voice’ and colonial citizenship. Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, (9).

Watters, Audrey. (2014) “Ed-tech’s Monsters”  Hack education, Sept 3, http://hackeducation.com/2014/09/03/monsters-altc2014

View of the Pride Flag flying from Senate House, with my favorite Apologetic Building on Russell Square in the foreground, also the view from post-conference drinks July 1st (photo by me)

They Have a Fight, Triangle Wins

Image by Lawrie Phipps

(this blogpost co-authored by Lawrie Phipps)

The last time that Lawrie Phipps and I ran a digital mapping session at the Jisc digital leadership course, early in 2018, we had just finished answering all of the questions we usually fielded once we ran a digital mapping session.  The method we were using was still premised on pole graphs, on tension pairs, and even though we had moved away from what we thought were identity-focused pairs towards more practice-centered ones like “broadcast” and “engagement”  we once again got the questions: “Which one is better?” “Should we all be somewhere in the middle?”

We had been weary for a while, on our own behalf as well as on behalf of our workshop participants, of the push to self-categorize, and in particular the drive to figure out which category was better than the other.  So after all of the delegates had gone for the day, we started sketching on one of the ubiquitous flip charts that we always had for the course.

We’ve published some of our thoughts on the Triangle in our book chapter here, written just after we had tried using it in workshops.  What we came up with was 3 basic categories of practices: Creation, Consumption, and Conversation.  Each “C” is a line on the triangle, and we described the process in that chapter as follows:

“The interior of the triangle is where people map the practices that are bounded by their institution and the work they do in institutional digital platforms and places. The exterior of the triangle is where they can map everything else–what they do that is not bounded by the institution. This can be their personal lives, or their work that does not take place in official channels, but rather on the open web, in self-hosted or commercial platforms.”

We wanted, in this triangle exercise, to give ourselves and our workshop participants a way of talking about their digital practice without having to already have theories of digital in their heads, and also without feeling like they should then come to judgemental conclusions about what their practices meant about themselves as people.  We wanted to start with the practices, and then have the conversations be informed by people’s already existing (and already quite complex) identities.

That was our motivations for coming up with the Digital Practice Triangle.  So then we had to look for chances to deploy it in a workshop setting. The first time we tried it was at an internal staff development event in Lancaster.  Once people plotted their practices on their triangles, we then encouraged them to use emoji stickers to annotate their practice maps (much as we used to do when we were still using the tension-pairs mapping techniques).  We only had 45 minutes to do the workshop. We initially thought that would never be enough time, remembering how much conversation people required around the tension pairs–for example, the very first iteration of the Jisc digital leadership course, we spent an entire day going over the theoretical models of digital identity that informed the mapping practices.  What we found with the triangle exercise was that people immediately got stuck into the mapping. There were very few questions about what people “should” be doing, but there was discussion about where what they did “fit” among the categories of Creation, Consumption, and Conversation (and some cases where people said their practice did not “fit” the instrument and so they drew around and outside of the triangle).  By the end not only had we gotten everyone to represent their digital practices, but we had also had time to discuss how people felt about those practices, and start to think about what if anything they might want to do differently.

So then we did the Digital Practice Triangle exercise again, next at UCISA in the Spring of 2018, and then at an internal OU event in the Fall, later that year.

It was the OU event that provided Jo Parker with the framework she’d been looking for in her own digital capabilities work.  We knew that Jo had been using it, but didn’t have the details until recently, when she shared with us the following:

“I have been using it [the Triangle] extensively in digital capabilities (DiSC) face to face workshops with our Als (associate lecturers), as part of our annual staff development programme 2018-19. Hour long sessions run at various locations up and down the country; participants are self-selecting, signing up for what interests them from a range of topics and I reckon we will have seen about 200 people in 10 locations by the end of July … There’s likely to be an online equivalent session at some point as well.”

Jo told us she’s used the Digital Practice Triangle in outside events (such as a keynote address at Cambridge Libraries) as well as internal ones, with a range of participants including academic staff, support staff, and students.  She went on (to our great delight) to say:

“It’s been an absolute lifesaver to me in terms of the digital capability work because it’s an easy way of starting potentially difficult conversations: it means I can talk to people who are wary of what the university is trying ‘to do to them’ as result of our experiences over the last couple of years. “

And then, in April 2019, and the reason we’re writing this blogpost now as opposed to any other particular time, the DigPins folks (particular shout-out to Autumm Caines and Sundi Richard) offered the Triangle as an option for digital practice mapping, and Sarah Lohnes Watulak took them up on it, and wrote this.  We particularly value her feeling that “I think that the triangle map could be a useful conversation starter for connecting actions and tools to beliefs and values and how those are taken up in digital social identity enactment.”  This was our intention. We are so pleased that came through.

In the course of witnessing people using the Digital Practice Triangle “in the wild” and our own uses of it in workshop settings, we are continuing to think about what constructive sort of “Now What” activities can follow on from visualizing digital practices.  We have written in the past about the Digital Perceptions tool, and have proposed that people use it as a way to reflect on their practices in a trusted network, and a context of care.  

“Who are the people who are already in your network, how can you open a door to the people you want to hear from about your practice, what it means, what it means to you, what it means to them.  How do we create the moments of reflection that come from a place of care, rather than from an abstracted notion of visibility and importance? How can we create places of reflection that feel like home?”

We hope to continue to develop this work further, and of course would also  love to hear if you choose to use any of these instruments in your own work.  Please let us know.

Lawrie also made this video of the history-to-date and rationale for the Digital Practice Triangle–enjoy!

Listening to Teachers and Students

Panel discussion view on March 13, 2019, Digifest19, Birmingham. Photo by Steve Rowett.

This is one of those weeks where I’m going to do the inadviseable thing and blog at least twice, because I’ve got stuff to say.  Remember when there were rules about when you were “supposed” to blog so that people could find and read your stuff? I guess I never paid much attention, in part because blogging swiftly became a means for me to sort through my own thoughts (and if people read along, that was great, but not always necessary for it to be useful..).

ANYWAY.

Those of you who have been following along at home might recall that Lawrie Phipps and I conducted research last year on teaching practices in HE and FE in the UK, and we presented on the project last Fall, and just recently have published one Journal article and one white paper based on that work.  We handed out a very nicely Jisc-produced executive summary of our work earlier this month in Birmingham, and there’s a  pdf here for anyone who wants to see it.  

The reason we had a chance to distribute the executive summary was because #Digifest19 was going on, and during that event Lawrie and I had a chance to facilitate a panel discussion based on our work.  We are extremely grateful to our panelists, Sarah Davies (recently of Jisc, and now Director of Education Innovation at the University of Bristol), Nikki Rivers (Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Gloucestershire), and Sara Berkai (research assistant at UCL and former student in the School of Management there), for offering their insights from their particular positions in the sector.  We are also grateful to Steve Rowett of UCL who recorded the discussion for us, which is available for viewing or listening to here.  (We are working on getting a transcript for this thank you for your patience). Lawrie and I additionally owe our thanks to the people in HE and FE whom we interviewed, we are grateful that they gave us their time and thoughts for the sake of this project.

I was so pleased not just in the engagement with our work by our panel, but also from the people in the room.  We were rightfully called on the lack of FE representation in our panel, even though we had FE representation in our research, and really needed that perspective.  In a context where speakers are not offered travel expenses or other compensation, getting folks from FE (or less well provisioned parts of HE) to any event is going to continue to be a challenge, and we definitely need to do better, and demand better of organizations who sponsor and put on such events.  We were asked about what we were going to do next, now that this particular piece of the work is done, and I’m pleased we have an answer for that: we’re going to do more research on teaching AND LEARNING practices, this time with UCL.

UCL are embarking on a Digital Learning Environment review and as a part of that work they have brought me in to train a team to conduct in-depth interviews with students about their learning practices, and staff about their teaching, and then to assist with the analysis and write up of that data.  The preliminary work we have done composing and refining our interview instruments promises a great deal of rich information that will build nicely on the work that Lawrie and I have already published. It is my fervent hope that the insights from qualitative work such as this can start to answer questions that surveys are never going to answer, will start to illuminate why people are interacting with systems (or not) and how choices around analog or digital practices are situated in larger material and organization contexts.  University policies that emerge from a grounding in genuine insight into behavior are exciting to contemplate. I have always admired UCL’s intentions around teaching and learning work (and have happily had UCL as a field site not once but twice before), and am grateful (once again, that is the real theme of this blogpost) to Steve Rowett for bringing me in to do the work as well as to Sara Berkai for being a key part of the research team.(as well as an ace panel discussant).  I am pleased and excited about this new work, and look forward to reporting on what happens once we’re further along into the process.